D.C. Circuit’s “COOL” Decision Eases Government’s Burden in Justifying Compelled Speech

DC CircuitIf government wants to force you to say something you would not otherwise express, it must have a very good reason for doing so. This bedrock First Amendment principle applies to individuals and business enterprises alike.

In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit—arguably the nation’s second most important federal court—carved away at this principle and the constitutional protection it provides. Below, we discuss how that court allowed a federal agency to repeatedly change its declared reason for compelling speech and in an en banc panel opinion improperly eased government’s burden to prove a substantial governmental interest.

District Court Challenge. The compelled speech at issue in American Meat Institute (AMI) v. USDA is a country of origin label (“COOL”) recording the place of birth, residence, and slaughter of the animal from which each cut of meat taken. In the proposed rule’s Statement of Benefits and Costs, USDA asserted the mandate was justified because “certain U.S. consumers valued the designation.” AMI argued in its public comments that this interest was neither governmental nor substantial. USDA responded in the final rule with a stunning tautology: our interest is substantial and governmental because Congress empowered us to impose the COOL mandate.

When AMI sued to enjoin COOL on July 25, 2013, the agency again shifted focus, advancing a new justification that never appeared in the administrative record: “correct misleading speech and prevent consumer deception.” The federal district court bought USDA’s made-for-litigation governmental interest while denying AMI’s motion. In permitting this new justification, Judge Jackson ignored a 1947 Supreme Court precedent, SEC v. Chenery Corp. That decision holds that when judging the propriety of agency action, courts are limited to what is in the administrative record. Continue reading

Quick Take: Some Possible Impacts of SCOTUS’s POM Wonderful Decision on State-law Food Labeling Class Actions

food-courtIn some of our commentaries on food labeling class actions (collected under the “Food Court” tag), we have lamented how such lawsuits end-run the federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act’s (FDCA) prohibition on private enforcement. Defendants have argued that the FDCA preempts lawsuits brought under laws such as California’s Sherman Law or Unfair Competition Act. Regrettably, judges have rejected this argument, and have found preemption only if a lawsuit would impose labeling requirements beyond what Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations would require.

Plaintiffs and defendants in these suits expressed significant interest when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in January to review a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision, POM Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola Co. There, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the FDCA precluded POM’s federal Lanham Act suit charging that a Minute Maid Blueberry Pomegranate juice’s name and label were misleading. While POM Wonderful involved the interplay between two federal statutes, rather than between federal and state statutes, some opined that a broadly written Supreme Court opinion could either help state-law food labeling suit defendants defeat those claims or add powerful credence to plaintiffs’ arguments that the FDCA does not impede their private enforcement actions.

The High Court decided POM Wonderful on June 12. In an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit. While the ruling could inspire more Lanham Act lawsuits between  competitors, it is unlikely to have a major impact on the types of class actions being filed in The Food Court and elsewhere.

Justice Kennedy stated baldly that “this is not a pre-emption case,” and thus “the state-federal balance does not frame the inquiry.” POM Wonderful therefore will not impact arguments that the FDCA preempts state-law class actions challenging food labels. Justice Kennedy also observed “this is a statutory interpretation case,” and focused the Court’s analysis on whether the FDCA and the Lanham Act were complementary or conflicting. Continue reading

Federal Regulators Shove First Amendment Down Slippery Slope with School Ad Ban Proposal

high-school-cafeteria-coloradoThink of the children!

That phrase is a “tried-and-true debate stopper,” ethicist Jack Marshall writes, “because of its ability to inhibit rational thought.” It’s no wonder, then, that professional activists and government regulators often cloak actions which might otherwise be highly questionable (and unconstitutional) in the appealing mantle of safeguarding America’s youth.

For instance, government routinely invokes protection of children as a justification for restricting commercial speech. Three years ago, a triumvirate of federal agencies tried to limit kids’ exposure to food and beverage ads through an informal guidance document. Thankfully, that effort fell flat. But Washington’s appetite for limiting “disfavored” speech—in the interest of those ubiquitous children—is never sated, as a recently proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulation reminds us.

The February 26 proposal dictates how local education agencies (i.e. school boards) are to devise “local school wellness policies.” The USDA Secretary, joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, announced the rule at a White House event and proudly touted the proposal’s unprecedented prohibition of advertising for selected foods and beverages on school property. That part of the proposal violates the First Amendment, a conclusion which WLF shared with USDA last week in its formal comments to the agency. Continue reading

Supreme Court Observations: Lexmark Int’l v. Static Control Components

Villafranco_John_web Lynch_Michael_web Garcia_Paul_webGuest Commentary

by John E. Villafranco, Michael C. Lynch, and Paul R. Garcia, Kelley Drye & Warren LLP*

(Ed. Note: Villafranco and Lynch authored an October 2013 WLF Legal Opinion Letter previewing the Lexmark case which can be accessed here)

On March 25, 2014, a unanimous Supreme Court in Lexmark Int’l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc. ruled that a manufacturer of components for use in refurbished toner cartridges has standing under Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a), to sue the maker of printers in which the cartridges could be used for false advertising. Static Control Components, Inc., the component manufacturer, alleged that Lexmark International, Inc., the printer company, falsely told consumers that they could not lawfully purchase replacement cartridges made by anyone other than Lexmark, and falsely told companies in the toner cartridge remanufacturing business that it was illegal to use Static Control’s components.

The question before the Court was not whether Static Controls has constitutional standing under Article III, but whether it has so-called “prudential standing.” The Court initially noted that “prudential standing” is a misnomer, and that the real question “is whether Static Control falls within the class of plaintiffs whom Congress authorized to sue under § 1125(a).” Slip Op. 8-9. If it does, a court “cannot limit a cause of action that Congress has created because ‘prudence’ dictates.” Slip Op. 9. Rejecting the various approaches of the lower courts—from the competitor-only test, to antitrust standing, to the reasonable interest inquiry—the Supreme Court instead adopted a two-party inquiry.

Continue reading

Proposed Use of Tax Code to “Protect” Food Consumers Is Bad Policy and Unconstitutional

EnglishChip_lowGuest Commentary

by Chip English, Davis Wright Tremain LLP

Childhood obesity is a substantial problem worthy of serious discussion.  Unfortunately, legislators also appear to see it as an issue worthy of unsound and unconstitutional legislative action.  On July 25, 2013, Representative DeLauro, together with Representatives Lee, Defazio, Clay and Grijalva, introduced the most recent example of this food police problem.   H.R. 2831 would “deny any [IRS tax] deduction for marketing directed at children to promote the consumption of food of poor nutritional quality.”  The proposed legislation is both vague and overbroad and, more importantly, is an unconstitutional content, speaker, and audience targeted “tax on knowledge.”  H.R. 2831 cannot withstand First Amendment scrutiny.  Moreover, the proposal raises equal protection and arbitrary and capricious government action issues because government Speech Police would determine which marketing is “directed at children” and which food is of “poor nutritional quality.”

HR 2831 would amend the Internal Revenue Code to deny a broad array of travel, goods or services, gifts and other promotional expense deductions associated with “marketing directed to children” (persons under the age of 18)  of “poor nutritional quality” foods.  The Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, would determine which foods are of poor nutritional quality by considering which foods are “inconsistent with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans under section 301 of the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C. § 5341).”  Leaving aside the policy question of whether the IRS, which is still dealing with determinations of which organizations qualify for charitable organization status, should be involved in determining which foods are of poor nutritional quality, government determinations of what marketing is “directed at children” and what food products are “inconsistent” with Dietary “Guidelines”, will inevitably be arbitrary and capricious because those terms are vague and ambiguous. Continue reading

Former NCAA Athletes Still “In The Game” As Court Finds No First Amendment Immunity For EA Sports

EA SportsCross-posted at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor page

A little over three years ago, in For Video Gaming Likenesses, If “You’re in the Game,” Are Your Rights Being Violated?, we highlighted an interesting lawsuit in California federal court in which former collegiate athletes were suing EA Sports. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on the appeal by EA Sports, affirming that the First Amendment does not protect it from liability for violating athletes’ “right of publicity” (In Re: NCAA Student-Athlete Name & Likeness Litigation).

The Lawsuit. The athletes alleged that EA Sports’s use of their images in NCAA football and basketball video games without permission violated California statutory and common law rights. EA Sports countered that the First Amendment protected them from liability, and moved to dismiss the class action as an unlawful strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP). The trial court ruled that because the NCAA basketball and football video games failed to transform either the players themselves or the settings and circumstances through which they achieved their notoriety, EA Sports could not assert a First Amendment defense.

A wide spectrum of professional and business interests, understanding the potential impact of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, participated as amicus curiae. Professional sports unions, TV and movie studios, online gossip sites, and comic book and newspaper publishers contributed their views. Continue reading

Another Grocery Basket Full of Lawsuit Claims for The Food Court

Heading to The Food Court?

Heading to The Food Court?

Cross-posted at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor page

Gum, crackers, granola, fruit punch, cheese, nuts and nut mixes, lemonade, stuffing mix, gelatin, easy bake mac-and-cheese.

A good day’s shopping for most, but for some, such as California resident Susan Ivie, this basket full of goods represents a lawsuit in the making. Ms. Ivie purchased these products, produced by Kraft Foods, Cadbury, and Back to Nature, over a four-year period. Upon discovering that those companies had, in her opinion, duped her into making those purchases through false or misleading statements, Ms. Ivie contacted some lawyers, and volunteered to be the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit.

Well, we’re not sure if Ivie v. Kraft Foods Global et. al actually came about that way, but a recent decision in the suit provides us another opportunity to opine about the proliferation of food labeling lawsuits and the preferred venue for these claims: The Food Court (aka the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California). To learn more about this litigation trend and why the Northern District is so popular, read a recent story from The Recorder, coincidentally called “Welcome to Food Court“, or read our numerous past posts which use that moniker.

State-level enforcement of federal labeling rules. Ivie pleads her case under, among other laws, California’s “Sherman Laws.” Those laws explicitly adopt all federal food labeling laws and regulations. This tactic allows plaintiffs, and federal judges, to do what federal law explicitly reserves to the FDA — interpret and enforce food labeling rules. Defendants, such as Kraft, Cadbury, and Back to Nature, have tried to get such claims dismissed by arguing the “primary jurisdiction doctrine” and federal preemption. In Ivie, Judge Ronald Whyte went through Ms. Ivie’s shopping cart, item by item, and examined the defendants’ arguments. Continue reading